Eulogy for Sam
One man has bought us together today. Our numbers are testimony to our love for him. At the same time, we each see things differently, and our impressions and memories of the same person are as varied as the pebbles on a Sussex beach. Here are the impressions and memories of just one pebble.
Picture if you will, a young man- strong limbed and tanned under an African sky. He ploughs the soil with a team of 14 oxen and manages this without the use of a whip. This is unheard of in South Africa. When I asked how he did this, he replied: ”I went to the two lead oxen and talked to them. It took time but eventually they got it. ” With hindsight, we could see this was a useful preparation for the task he was to undertake 20 years later- persuading independent minded craftsmen of the benefits of pulling the same direction.
Cut to postwar London- smoke blackened, streets gap toothed with bomb damage- rationing; poverty; people emerging from darkness, trying to piece together broken lives. This was the “Heart of the British Empire” that 19 year old Sam had always longed to see. Hyde Park corner introduced him to the charismatic anarchist Phillip Sanson, and a wealth of conflicting ideologies. He threw his lot in with the anarchists of the Malatesta Club. He read widely, friends put on plays mocking politicians; he listened to informal lectures by professor Joad; organised talks on Dickens, Galsworthy, Hardy and Belloc; shared meals with friends with he needy, and saw more of life in those few years than most of us ever manage.
“I was a handsome fellah in them days” he once remarked – a fact which did not go unnoticed among a number of female friends, nurses in particular, it would seem. A sixth sense helped him to save one special friend who was taking an unusual time in the communal bathroom. He ran up two flights of stairs, put his fist through a locked door and dragged her body from a gas filled bathroom. Health and safety was less rigorous then. How Maryjo ever managed to tempt this action man from the joys of postwar London remains her secret to this day.
Working with copper came about in a curious way. He found a job in the maintenance department of a factory . When there was no maintenance to be done, Sam used a pile of copper offcuts, due to be melted down and strictly off limits, to make small gifts for friends. I wondered how a man could suddenly find the skills to shape copper to his will, and in a rare revelation about his early life, Sam admitted he had served a 5 year apprenticeship with a jeweller in South Africa. The factory foreman, Matthew Cavenar, called him “a bloody fool” for giving away things, which could be sold; so they set up in business in an informal way. Sam made the work, and between them they spirited the products out of the factory gates past guards too cosy in their sheds to go out into the cold. When the owner of Orbus Gallery came to Sam’s digs to look at his flat mate’s pots and ended up buying all Sam‘s copper work for £20, it seemed a pointer to the future.
Sam and Maryjo moved from London to join Alan Alborne, his wife and three children, in Westham, to live the sixties dream of a communal life. That was 1965. They grew vegetables on a quarter of acre of land, milked a cow, endured winters in a caravan, Sam helping to provide much needed cash by collecting repairs from Portobello dealers one week and getting paid the following one. The arrival of a baby sometimes delivers a healthy shock to this world of dreams, and David provided plenty of electricity. After six years and to Maryjo’s immense relief, the family moved to ? Oak Tree Cottage in Hailsham, which if less romantic, was at least equipped with the basic necessities of modern life.
So what of Sam the coppersmith; Sam the founder and first chairman of The Guild of Sussex Craftsmen; Sam the teacher; the ever generous host; the faithful friend; the husband; the father; the grandfather; the raconteur; the difficult; the obstinate, the man who liked to call a spade a bloody shovel? There are many facets to this diamond but its beauty was always rough cut and unpolished and pure.
In In 1976 a figure came into my workroom and stood without saying a word while I threw pots. He then broke the silence saying: “My work is so different to yours- it takes me days to make a bowl, and here you have made a board full while I watched” I was one of so many craftsmen and women Sam found time to visit, to watch, to encourage and to inspire. Years later I visited his workplace, and remember most clearly, apart from the chaos, that there was no floor to speak of but an old damp carpet underfoot. “It settles into the ground’ Sam told me cheerfully and then we just put another one on top of it.
Sam was a visionary, and he provided The Guild of Sussex Craftsmen with its soul. There was a quality in that unmistakable South African growl which spoke of deep conviction and commanded attention because it appealed to ideals beyond our own selfish interests. At a time when the prime minister of this country told us “There is no such thing as society,” it took an immigrant, anarchist , coppersmith to remind us of the much older truth that we are members one of another. The Guild he set in motion and guided through its infancy was much more than a trade association. He saw it as a means of combatting the isolation which craftsmen know so well; to be a meeting place of friends, of mutual support, of people who believed there was more to be gained by cooperating than by competing, of people who loved their work and wanted to share ideas. Ideas he had absorbed 20 years ago in London bore good fruit in our county. I was curious to know what sort of chairman he was. One account reads: ‘Sam was always ready to hear the views of those who disagreed with him and be democratic in allowing the majority view’. Another reads: ‘I can remember interminable hours at meetings held by Sam, which went on and on until he got his way’. The same source went on to say: “I just remember his great determination to work for crafts and craftsmanship, in all forms. It is even more remarkable to me that it was not to promote himself, and yet he spent hours, days, weeks if not months and years. In fact it has been his life, so of course it is years’.
There were 3 times in his life when depression almost extinguished the creative spirit. The last of them coincided with the decision to build a house in the place where the damp carpet once stood. A time of great change. Sam came to tell me he was finshed, that he had run out of ideas, that he didn’t know what he would do with his time. I had no comfort except to say things do arise from that void, given time and patience. And so it proved, for from a tiny workshop in their garden (when he asked if he could he buy some firebrick from me I knew the worst was over); from that tiny workshop, came work quite different to anything we had seen before. Not crosses commissioned for churches, nor useful things for homes, but work which was made in answer to deep questions- our place in the scheme of things; what it means to be alone; the atomic structure of matter; the whirling cosmos. This was a creative culmination, the product of a man, freed from the market, the work of his hands, his head, his heart.
Accolades have come. There hangs in Glyndleigh a beautiful Springbok on lettered parchment by Leslie Benenson- an expression of thanks from the craftsmen he brought together. There are framed awards from the Heritage Crafts Association and from The Society of Designer Craftsmen. There is, thanks to the efforts of his talented pupil Sean, a British Empire medal in a velvet lined box, and some of of us were lucky enough to be there for the presentation by the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, in full regalia- ia marked contrast to Sam’s, let us say informal, turn out. Sam was not well, but how proud he looked and how pleased at the occasion.
I have a post card from him, which reads simply- “Always welcome, even in Winter” and many of us have enjoyed that welcome – as warm as the fire which always seemed to be burning. “Come in. Have a cup of tea and Maryjo has made some cake” and the great rough handshake or enveloping hug made the world a wider and a warmer place. In the latter days on being asked ”How are you Sam?” his invariable growled reply was ”SURVIVING”. Well he got tired of SURVIVING, and took his leave without the help of the medical profession.
I conclude with words written 1800 years before this church was built
“There is a spirit that is mind and life, truth and vast spaces. He enfolds the whole universe and in silence is loving all.
This is the spirit that is in my heart, smaller than a grain of mustard seed, greater than the earth, greater than the heavens, greater than all these worlds. …To him I come when I go beyond this life.
You had that spirit Sam. Thank you for so much.